Any Given Sunday (1999)

Dodgy game action sequences aside, Oliver Stone’s ode to sports drama and hedonism is an editing tour de force, there’s no denying. But does it deserve to be praised as genre defining, is the question. In a film that covers possibly all the dynamics and forces exerted on a modern sports franchise (results, results, results) Any Given Sunday truly is an all encompassing portrayal, second only to HBO’s Hard Knocks in terms of dramatized realism. It’s no NFL Films and he’s no Sabol. He does get a few things right — mainly how the black athlete is constantly under threat of the diva affliction. Yes, the ultimate team sport can be an hotbed for elitist, “me first” syndrome. Yet given that football often provides a fitting microcosm of American ethos, coupled with America’s discomfort with what it deems a checkered past, the NFL would follow suit and deny Stone use of any likeness to the real thing in his film. That’s right, Any Given Sunday is a throwback to a time when purveyors of hard hits freely and openly pulled groupies on the road. I suppose one of the film’s excesses (two kinds of which exist but we’ll only concern ourselves with one at a time) proved problematic for the NFL to lend (associate) its image to (with) even then, at the time of its release. Despite that, for large stretches, the film looks and sounds great. It suffers from inconsistencies like the aforementioned arcadey sequences, and terrible uniforms. Hence we join the 7-4 Miami Sharks midseason in the fictional AFFA league. But the film is at its strongest when the chaotic, off-the-field happenings and shenanigans are laid bare. But right before we fully dive in, the top two choices at QB in their depth chart get seriously injured in quick succession, with an unproven prospect sitting next line.

Charting the trials and travails of an embattled team owner never looked so good with Cameron Diaz putting in her sole noteworthy performance, a rarity by her standards, though few mistook her for an actress before and since. Jaimie Foxx as the raw and gung-ho backup signal caller also gives a believable interpretation of the improviser playmaker style of QB’s, pre-Michael Vick appropriately enough. Here, Oliver delivers as much a lament of the current state of the game and a tribute to its past as he engages in coincidental crystal gazing. The starter, Dennis Quaid, is a walking contradiction of dualities stuck between what his role demands inside the gridiron and his demeanor outside it. His domineering wife and motivator extraordinaire is played by Lauren Holly, the type of presence many a locker room today could make use of. Jim Brown and Lawrence Taylor lead the charge of former NFL players among the cast, here on the Miami Sharks staff and roster respectively. James Woods is the sly team doctor, scheming ways to keep the injured reserve list as sparsely populated as medically possible, though never so ethically. He has a foil in a morally upstanding subordinate. At the center of all this is Al Pacino as long time Sharks coach Tony D’Amato, and his handling of the QB controversy now involving sidelined veteran Jack Rooney (Quaid) and rising third stringer Willie Beamen (Foxx).

Throughout the majority of run time, and as he’s forced out of the field, Cap Rooney is also pushed outside the narrative. Willie “Steamin'” Beamen takes a front and center position as he acclimatizes himself to the playbook, and soon faces the prospect of having to appease the plethora of veterans on either side of the ball, a reality he has no intention on fulfilling when he starts making plays. Enter the inaudible audibles and chaotic huddles. The New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez years would replicate a similar atmosphere of dysfunction and misconduct save for the storied past the Sharks’ coach has actually had. No knock against Rex Ryan. I love the guy despite him ruining Hard Knocks by setting the bar too high for anyone after him to measure up to. But imagine all those five seasons including the Butt Fumble, the Inés Sainz episode, and Rex Ryan’s near meltdown early last season rolled into either AFC title game year and you’ll get Any Given Sunday. The drama and different toll on the private lives of the trio get ratcheted up as the stakes get higher deeper into the regular season. The Sharks would lose their grip on a high seed but do make the playoffs and go on the road with Beamen under center most of the way.

Meanwhile, Christina (Diaz) unbeknownst to her of course, stumbles on fool’s gold. Behind the coaching staff’s back she colludes with the team doctor (Woods) to manipulate the injury report, thereby keeping certain players out, and prolonging others’ chance at receiving snaps they wouldn’t have earned otherwise. It’s mostly keeping Cap out so Beamen has his moment in the sun, because when consistency becomes more elusive, why not bank on the soaring ratings. Sponsorship and endorsement deals so come in for Beamen, that’s to be expected. But all is a bit premature. And as family and teammates are slowly alienated, and the playmaking proves an unsustainable way to win games, shoes begin to perilously dangle before they drop for Willie. But Christina though… As miscast as Diaz is in her role, and who would have thought the result would have turned out this good, bigger fish has never been more out of the water. And really, walking in a dead man’s shoes (her father’s) with poor roster management and misplaced priorities, it spelled disaster from the onset of the Sharks latest era. Maybe it’s just me, but the role is perversely well cast if schadenfreude’ your thing. Either way the results are drama multiplied. One inconsistency is Shark Lavay’s (LT) pay to play contract with a bonus due one tackle away — except he’s on his last legs, and the medical staff has to clear him to suit up, first. And what do you know, he lines up, and does it on a touchdown saving play. Add in hits that almost always produce horizontal cartwheels, and drives that end in big play TD’s, and scores in the tune of 41-38 to decided almost every game, either gripping finales or on the last play, and it’s like Oliver Stone took his football cues from Madden video games. The Sharks don’t even have a division rival that he bothered to touch on. In hindsight, so much for the ‘intended’ lament and tributes to the game. Don’t get me wrong, the off the field stuff is a hedonist’s dream. But the shit between the lines is horrible — incidental filler to inflate he run time to give an epic length, I suppose.